Jude Long shares some insights about some of the crucial issues for Indigenous people in the remote parts of Australia
Jude Long is Principal of Nungalinya College, Darwin, NT
We hear a lot today about closing the gap between Indigenous and non–indigenous Australians. Government policies are developed, and decisions are made about how we (usually meaning non-indigenous people) are going to do that.
“The gap” has become a shorthand way of describing the inequalities in Australian society between the first and second peoples of this country. The gap exists across Australia, but it is very different for urban Indigenous people compared to those in remote communities. I can only talk from the context of Nungalinya College where most of our students come from remote communities across the Top End and down into the Centre of Australia.
Here is a story to illustrate the health gap for people in remote communities. We had a student come in to an intensive with a sore foot which had been burnt in a fire. Her community did have a clinic but it was currently closed because a 14 year old girl had committed suicide by hanging herself outside the clinic and so everyone was too scared to go to the there. She showed her foot to our staff who thought it smelled not so good so took her along to the hospital. It turned out that she had gangrene and had to have 3 toes amputated.
Life Expectancy Gap
Sadly, many people in remote communities die young – through suicide, accident or chronic illness. Life expectancy for Aboriginal people in the NT is about 61 for men and 69 for women. The issue of suicide in communities is becoming alarming. Statistics up to 2012 indicate the suicide rate in for Indigenous people is double that for the general population and anecdotally, the situation appears to be getting worse.
We had one student whose 2 brothers both committed suicide, and then his 9 year old nephew followed suit. The power poles on the Tiwi Islands all have spikes pointing downwards to stop people climbing up and touching their heads to the wires. These are shocking stories, but sadly commonplace in the top end.
Violence is a serious issue in many Aboriginal communities and in Darwin itself. Statistics show that Indigenous women in the NT are 23 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-indigenous women. As the research also says that probably 49% of assaults are unreported, the situation is actually even worse than the statistics show. A lot of the violence in communities is related to alcohol and substance abuse.
We hear quite a bit about this in the mainstream media, although the focus is primarily on children. However, in the Top End, new generations have a critical problem with literacy. Being unable to read is immensely disempowering. All the basic things in life in modern Australian society become a struggle – filling in a form, managing money, working, dealing with the justice system etc.
The Christian Gap
The issues of literacy, health and safety are general issues for all Aboriginal people, but for Indigenous Christians there is a further gap – related to their Christian faith. For well-educated English speaking Christians there are many options available to us if we want to grow in our faith and follow God more closely. We can read the Bible in our own language in probably hundreds of different versions, as well as access all sorts of Bible study aids. There are hundreds of churches to choose from and even a wide range of theological colleges for those training for ministry.
For Aboriginal people from remote communities the story is very different. There is only one full Bible in an Indigenous language, Kriol. There are also portions in some other languages. There are a few study aids being developed in language, but there are no commentaries, no Bible handbooks, and no theological textbooks in Indigenous languages.
The churches are often small, led by leaders with a limited understanding of the Bible, but faithful and committed in their practice. Rather than Sunday mornings, the life of the churches is in the evening fellowships where people sing, dance, pray and share, often several times a week. However, alongside that is the problem that there are all sorts of people coming in telling different stories about what is true and it gets very confusing. There are lots of funerals.
If a person wants to learn more about their faith or be trained for ministry, they can go to Nungalinya College to study but only to Cert IV level and they often struggle with coping with studying in a foreign language and culture.
You get the picture I am sure. There is a gap that needs to be closed, but it can’t just be non-indigenous people working to close the gap on their terms, it requires a real partnership where Indigenous people are empowered, and have a say in what the final outcome will look like.